In November, when it became clear that Joe Biden would be the next US President, London’s Financial Times analysed what that would mean for a number of world leaders who had cosied up to Donald Trump. A news analysis headline said, “Modi forced to tread different path in post-Trump era”, arguing that “Biden’s victory, China stand-off and missed Asia trade deal (RCEP) make New Delhi vulnerable.” FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman was blunt: “For Russia’s Putin, India’s Modi and the UK’s Johnson, relations with the US will become more challenging.”

That is a worry in Delhi that some in government circles admit privately, not merely because of Modi’s ‘Ab ki baar Trump Sarkar’ endorsement, but even more because of a whole host of actions the Modi government has taken, especially since the 2019 Lok Sabha victory, that are seen to have eroded India’s pluralism and democratic principles.

Of course, there are others who think that India-US relations are not going to be impacted because Biden will be pragmatic in dealing with Modi to take on China. They point to America’s Indo-Pacific strategy, suddenly declassified last week, which stated that strengthening relations with India and building it up as a counterweight to China was key. But that’s nothing new. The desire to build up India as a ‘democratic counterweight’ to ‘Communist’ China has been US policy since Eisenhower; building India up as a regional ‘strategic counterweight’ to China has been US thinking since the ‘secret’ draft 1992 Defence Policy Guidance. It has been US strategy since the George Bush administration declared in March 2005 that the US was “ready to help India’s rise to major power status, including militarily.” 

Joe Biden may well choose to be ‘pragmatic’ in dealing with Modi. But here’s what the late Naresh Chandra, India’s Ambassador to the US during Vajpayee’s premiership, once told me. In 2003, when there were concerns in the US about the Vajpayee government’s commitment to religious freedoms and the safety of minorities (following the Gujarat riots under Modi’s watch), Amb. Chandra, who was present at the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott dialogue, said that while India-US relations were on a “slow, strategic time-clock,” “these questions about religious rights, human rights, etc, will never be given up” in diplomacy.

“They bring them up whenever there are difficulties in the relationship in other areas.” Giving the other side a reason to bring up such questions “would either stop the relationship from growing or we would be forced to concede on some other issue of national interest.”

Faced not only with authoritarian China’s rise but also with the debasement of democracy at home, Joe Biden has promised to organise a global Summit for Democracy in the first year of his presidency to “...bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront the challenge of nations that are backsliding and forge a common agenda to address threats to our common values…” (India slid back 10 positions on the EIU Democracy Index and in Freedom House rankings for 2019).

Biden sees democracy as fundamental to achieving the ambitious agenda he has set out for his presidency. In April, he wrote in Foreign Affairs, “…the global challenges facing the United States…have grown more complex and more urgent, while the rapid advance of authoritarianism, nationalism, and illiberalism has undermined our ability to collectively meet them…the international system that the US so carefully constructed is coming apart at the seams. Trump and demagogues around the world are leaning into these forces for their own personal and political gain…Working together, democracies can and must confront the rise of populists, nationalists, and demagogues; the growing strength of autocratic powers and their efforts to divide and manipulate democracies.”

When Biden promises to eliminate ‘dark money’ in political funding, bring along rights activists, labour unions and environmentalists to the democracy summit as well to trade negotiations with the US, and to fight for the rule of law and against authoritarianism, none of these conversations are going to be easy for the Modi government.

How India Is Seen Today

Freedom House, the US democracy advocacy group whose report Joe Biden quoted, put India in the “countries in the spotlight” list in 2019, along with China and Russia. “Almost since the turn of the century, the US and its allies have courted India as a potential strategic partner and democratic counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific region,” it noted. “However, the Indian government’s alarming departures from democratic norms under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP could blur the values-based distinction between Beijing and New Delhi…the BJP has distanced itself from the country’s founding commitment to pluralism and individual rights, without which democracy cannot long survive.” As damning an indictment as one can get.

And that was focused on just one issue – the treatment of minorities. What would Freedom House have said had it looked at demonetisation, the ’dark money’ political funding scheme called electoral bonds, the frequent promulgation of ordinances, many of them violative of the Constitution such as the ‘love jihad’ ordinances or the labour ordinances that simply negated worker rights and protections, etc?

In the face of such severe indictment, should Modi expect business-as-usual with Biden’s America? Should it point to the China threat and say, “look America needs us, so don’t needle us on democracy?” Or should it resort to bravado and say, “We don’t need good relations with America, we have Modi”?

Listen To K Subrahmanyam

In 2012, the Indian Express published a previously unpublished essay on India’s grand strategy by the late K Subrahmanyam, the doyen of Indian strategic thinkers and father of foreign minister S Jaishankar. He wrote: “India is unusual in having had a grand strategy at Independence to meet the external and internal challenges to its growth in order to become a major international actor.” He identified the Constitution itself as India’s grand strategy. “…No other country is comparable to India in terms of its diversity of religions, languages and ethnicities. Consequently, unity is only possible under a secular, pluralistic, democratic and quasi-federal constitution.”

Recognising that the geopolitical situation had changed post-Cold War and with the rise of China and that non-alignment was not the desirable strategy for such a world, he wrote: “Thus the real question about the future world order is whether it is to be democratic and pluralistic, or dominated by one-party oligarchies that prioritise social harmony over individual rights…It (India) will therefore have three options: partnering with the US and other pluralistic, secular and democratic countries; joining hands with China at the risk of betraying the values of its Constitution and freedom struggle; and remaining both politically and ideologically non-aligned, even if against its own ideals.”

As Biden takes office and goes about planning for the Summit for Democracy, Narendra Modi will do well to ponder over those choices. If he can indeed change course from the centralising, authoritarian path it is on, Biden may be a great opportunity, one that Modi can use to propel India to leadership in a new world order.

In Subrahmanyam’s time, American non-proliferation champions used to harangue India for going nuclear. Subrahmanyam used to call them “non-proliferation Ayatollahs,” but he would not shirk from attending those meetings and defending India’s position. Today, if foreign minister Jaishankar will not even attend a meeting with US Congress representatives because Pramila Jayapal, a critic of the Modi government, would be present there, would he or Modi even want to be invited to the Summit for Democracy?